Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500

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Though Rilke’s Letters on Cezanne is to a large extent a purely personal document—and its importance is largely its testimony to his own development as an artist—it stands also as a significant landmark in the understanding of Cezanne’s work. At the time of the Salon d’Automne of 1907, as Rilke notes, the public (and even painters and critics) showed little understanding of Cezanne. Rilke’s letter of October 16, for example, includes this bitter indictment of his times:It is not possible that a time that can find satisfaction of its need for this kind of beauty [that of the Tivoli, an outdoor variety show] should also admire Cezanne and understand something of his devotion and hidden glory. The merchants make noise, that is all; and those who have a need to attach themselves to these things could be counted on the fingers of two hands, and they stand apart and are silent.

That Rilke’s letters closely anticipated later professional art critics and historians verifies Rilke’s importance to criticism of Cezanne.

Nevertheless, these letters are most interesting because of their documentation of an important turning point in Rilke’s personal and artistic life. Evidence of Cezanne’s importance to specific later works by Rilke is most obvious in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and in a poem written in the fall of 1908, “Requiem fur eine Freundin” (“Requiem for a Friend”). Rilke had begun writing The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge in 1904, but in 1907 he was finding it paralyzingly difficult to continue. When he did continue this writing (primarily in 1908 and 1909), it was with Cezanne as an important stimulus to his work. Indeed, parts of his letters to his wife in the fall of 1907 appear in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge scarcely changed, and Rilke discusses Malte Laurids Brigge at length in his letter of October 19: “Suddenly (and for the first time) I understand the fate of Malte Laurids.” A year later he wrote of the still-unfinished prose work:I should have written it last year, after those letters on Cezanne, which touched so directly and strongly on Malte: for Cezanne is nothing more than the first primitive, arid victory of which Malte was not yet capable. What was the death of Brigge, was Cezanne’s life, the life of his last thirty years. . . .

The importance of these letters to Rilke’s “Requiem for a Friend,” written after the death of the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, has been noted by Heinrich Wiegand Petzet, who further notes: “A separate essay would have to be written on the impact of Cezanne on Rilke’s poetry. . . .” Suffice it to say here that Letters on Cezanne— on “the old man who walked somewhere far ahead, alone”—remains as a witness not only to that old man but also to the younger one who could write: “I can tell how I’ve changed by the way Cezanne is challenging me now. I am on the way to becoming a worker. . . .”